Hurricane Katrina rescue effort was a motley, ad hoc operation _lowres

Advocate file photo by Mark Saltz -- St. Tammany firefighter Mark Frosch, left, and Joe Impastato, right, rescue a blind mother and son from their home on Lake Road on August 29, 2005, which was flooded due to Hurricane Katrina.

Carole Mundt and Frank Auderer worked together for decades before Hurricane Katrina forced them under the protective roof of Chalmette High School, where they both volunteered at an emergency shelter.

Mundt, an administrator in the local public school system, and Auderer, the retired principal of St. Bernard High School, helped manage the shelter as the storm tore the roof off the gymnasium and brought water as high as the second floor.

Mundt interviewed her friend about that week on May 24, 2006. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation:

FRANK AUDERER: I want to thank you all for the invite to come over to Chalmette High School on Aug. 29 and help you a little bit. I thought I’d spend a day with you and go home. I didn’t know I would be gone a month and a half.

CAROLE MUNDT: I realize how much we were working in a vacuum. When we helped the handicapped people out, I thought we would be sending them to a hospital. I did not realize every hospital in the city had collapsed. It struck home we weren’t helping those people by sending them away.

FA: You’re right. I was really concerned by the (multiple sclerosis) patient that we had here. On Wednesday, her dad came to me in the morning and said, “Frank, unless we get her out today, she’s going to die.” It took us a day to organize that because communications were so fragmented. Just to get her out of there. We were fortunate we had some of those firefighters with us with emergency equipment.

CM: We as teachers and educators are nurturers, but we aren’t medical people. It’s tough to make those calls. Do you remember that guy named Tom who had the dialysis in his stomach? He said to us, “I only have a couple of days before I get really sick unless I get that dialysis.” (Other school administrators) ran into him in a cafe in Covington a few weeks ago. I got on the phone with Tom, and he reminded me of how well he was treated here at the shelter. And you know how poor the conditions were here. His daughter sent us a donation check thanking us for saving her daddy’s life.

FA: I was talking to a gentleman on the roof on Thursday. He had no shoes; he had a T-shirt on and his pants. I asked where he came from to get here. He said he came from the 3700 block of Lina. I said, “How did you make it here?” He said, “To tell you the truth, I was hanging onto the top of a lamppost and the water washed me off. And I’m under the water and thinking, ‘This is the end of it for me.’ I pushed up as hard as I could to get to the top of the water. And I come up and what’s floating along is a garbage can. And I grabbed hold of it and I swam and kicked and pushed, and that’s how I got here.”

This is a guy who had gone through open-heart surgery. And he was very grateful to be here.

CM: Everybody has a Katrina story. Everybody has a pre-Katrina life, a pre-Katrina job. And now, everyone is living this post-Katrina world.

FA: The aftermath of the storm is beginning to settle in. The critical part is families are pretty dispersed now. St. Bernard is a pretty tight-knit community, and now their families are spread all over. And so to gather their families back together is a trying experience for so many people.

My youngest daughter had evacuated. She knew we had left to go to Chalmette High School to work with the shelter: my wife, my youngest son and myself. My oldest son and his daughter came as well because his wife is a nurse and she was working at a local hospital. My younger daughter did not know what happened to us, so she thought possibly we were no longer in existence. She had her husband calling the Sheriff’s Office and had us listed on the Internet as “missing persons.” We could not get out.

CM: We were in such a frenzy for so long and trying to maintain people’s sanity. Once you could see the water and know how high it was, people wanted to leave the building to walk to their houses, which was not a wise thing to do. We finally kicked into our counseling mode.

What do you remember about the water coming up?

FA: I remembered moving people upstairs. Since we were at the front door of the building, checking people in and out, the water was pushing up against the front doors. The tragedy of all of this is that the water did come up very quickly. By the time the last person got up to the second floor, we had 5 feet of water downstairs. The problem with that was the cafeteria was downstairs. Now all of the sudden we had 200 people upstairs but we didn’t have any food. We didn’t have any water.

CM: Remember we’d meet and try to problem-solve — how we’d ration the food and the water? My sister got a kick out of me. I called her and she said, “Well, what are you doing over there?” I said, “I’m planning the meals!” Planning the meals simply meant will we serve Cheerios or Frosted Flakes?

FA: When you realize we were serving dry cereal and cups of water for breakfast and for lunch, that was difficult. We had a truck in the back, and when the water receded, we were able to get out the second-floor window and break into the truck, and we found water and 10 cans of peaches.

CM: Those peaches were good!

FA: Anything was good at that point.

CM: I felt had we not been here, other lives would have been lost. We were able to pull people in, hydrate them, feed them and keep them safe until they were able to get out. That is what was the important thing for me.

FA: I never felt physically in danger. The roof had blown off so we had water coming in. And we had no utilities, no water, no sewage, no electricity. We had a huge generator outside. When the electricity went off, the electrician went out there. We could not get it running. We had two custodians who were constantly trying to keep the restrooms clean. That was an incredibly difficult task. It was a very trying situation. We were bringing people in with just the clothes on their back. We were putting them in through the windows. A lot of elderly people.

CM: I’m like you. I never felt in danger for my own life. I was afraid we were going to get ill from the unsanitary conditions we were in for so long. I always knew we would get out, I just didn’t know how long it would take us to get out.

FA: On Wednesday evening at 11 p.m., I decided I had to do something to clean up a little bit. I took a nacho bowl with a 12-ounce bottle of water, went down to the restroom to rinse off. I figured in the military they use a helmet so I can do it with a nacho bowl. And I shaved.

CM: On the roof, we used the rainwater to clean off.

FA: The husband of one of the school board employees was a diesel mechanic. Although we had four buses under water in the parking lot, when the water went out, he went out and got one of those buses started. He ought to get an award.

I think we were fortunate in that we were able to get everyone placed or out of the building by Wednesday evening. That just left the caretakers. We had 20 firefighters in this building. That was a good thing. This one gentleman was 77 at the time, and he was waving his arms in the water up to his chest. I said, “Go get him.” And he said, “No, don’t get me, get my wife.” She could barely move. We brought her in a chair and slid her through the window. He had come that distance in all that water to get that assistance.

We were up to 300 people in the building. And then they started putting those people in the gym. And that was another 800.

CM: I remember the night of the storm, I was walking the back hallway. I heard the roof go up and down on the gym. It was March until I could walk into my gym again. I just wouldn’t go there. But it’s coming along real well now.

FA: All I could think was, “God, that’s a $100,000 floor, and if it gets wet, it’s over with.”

I’m glad we were here. I agree with you we saved people’s lives. I wish we would have had more notice for the storm so we could have stocked up some food.

CM: Whatever happened to the bus drivers? We owe them a debt of gratitude.

FA: They were two retired military men. They were evacuating people out of Charity Hospital when they got the call to come down to Paris Road.

CM: Where are you with your house renovations?

FA: Two weeks away. As soon as I could get back to St. Bernard, I made the decision we were going to live there.

CM: Did you have second thoughts living there without the neighborhood not bouncing back? You all will be the first people back.

FA: There are 20 trailers on my street full of people who are working on their houses. It’s slow, but they’re coming. I think I’m further along than a lot of people are. The emotion when you open the door and look in, it’s like, “Oh my Lord, where do I start?” Sometimes it’s even hard to recognize the furniture. I forced the front door open. I couldn’t get into the office because the doors were closed; the furniture was tumbled up against the doors. Eventually I had to break into it. I did not recognize the furniture. The leaves for the table to my dining room table, I held them up and asked, “What is this?” The furniture had so changed its composition.

This was about three to four weeks afterwards. We were not allowed to get back into St. Bernard Parish (for a while). At the first opportunity to get in, I came in. My house was structurally sound, so that was good. Katrina did damage to my roof, but Rita destroyed it. I put a new roof on. I had a few broken windows, but that was minor.

We just have a deeper appreciation for who we are and our relationship to one another. To know that in times of crisis we can count on one another. It’s those kinds of things (that make) you realize the strength of the friendships.

CM: We were together because we were friends to begin with.

FA: Those days were difficult. But it didn’t seem to impact the relationship at all. No one was looking to grab the other person by the throat. Everyone recognized that these were difficult situations and said, “OK, we have to pull together.”

CM: We’ve been together 35 years as a group. And we weren’t going to let each other down. It wasn’t going to happen.

Mundt is the assistant principal at Chalmette High School. Auderer, 78, remains retired, but in 2008 he ran for a seat on the St. Bernard Parish Council and won with 73 percent of the vote. He served his full four-year term as his way of helping shepherd recovery in his area.